Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Lions (11.10.13)

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The Bears’ playoff hopes took a major hit on Sunday following a 21-19 loss to division rival Detroit. The loss was the second of the season to the Lions, who now hold a decisive tiebreaker over the Bears should the two teams conclude the season with identical records.

The second-guessers and those itching to say “I told you so” regarding Jay Cutler’s quick return from a groin injury were out in full force after the game. The quarterback had a nice first half but was noticeably limping around the field and had nowhere near the mobility he typically displays. Word came out afterward that it was an ankle injury, not a recurring injury to the groin, that slowed Cutler. But those with the guilty verdict already written in stone in their minds were skeptical that the Bears were telling the truth.

What complicated things further was backup quarterback Josh McCown’s solid performance in Green Bay last Monday night. When paired with the old adage that the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town, fans were clamoring for Marc Trestman to make the switch throughout the entire second half, even as the head coach and the backup quarterback himself stood staunchly behind the embattled Cutler.

The switch was finally made on the final drive of the game, only because the Bears needed McCown’s fresh legs to move around and run up and down the field in a hurry-up situation. McCown led the Bears on a touchdown drive to pull within two points, but a pair of questionable two-point conversion play calls failed and the Bears lost the game. That’s right, the Bears had two shots at converting a two-point conversion because the Lions’ ignorant aggressiveness resulted in a roughing the quarterback penalty on the first attempt, giving the Bears a second try. But on neither play did the Bears attempt to throw the ball to their two tall receivers, Brandon Marshall or Alshon Jeffery, for whom up to that point, the Lions had no answers. Those two weren’t even on the field for the first conversion attempt.

Cutler looked very sharp to open the game when he was still healthy. On the first drive, he led the Bears on a five-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a perfectly-thrown 32-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Marshall. On the ensuing drive, the Lions answered back with a touchdown drive of their own, and the shootout that many were expecting was apparently in progress.

But after those two scores, the defenses tightened up, Cutler’s body stiffened up, and the rest of the first half went scoreless.

The Lions opened the third quarter with a touchdown drive. After holding Reggie Bush to just 16 rushing yards in the first half, the Bears allowed the Lions running back to break off a 39-yard gain on his first carry of the second half. Two plays later, quarterback Matthew Stafford hooked up for a touchdown with receiver Calvin Johnson, whom the Bears — specifically Charles Tillman — had trouble covering all game.

After the two teams traded punts, Cutler delivered a 44-yard strike to Marshall, proving he could still throw downfield despite being hobbled. That kind of pass further cemented in the minds of Trestman and McCown that Cutler was still able to play effectively. Cutler also completed an 18-yard pass to Jeffery on that drive, and the Bears came away with three points on a Robbie Gould field goal.

The third quarter ended with the Bears trailing by four, 14-10. And with both defenses playing tough and the offenses struggling, the Bears needed to find a break to help them out.

They got that in the form of an interception by struggling safety Chris Conte. Conte picked off a pass intended for Johnson and returned it 35 yards to the Lions’ 9-yard-line. On the first play following the interception, the Bears scored a touchdown on a Forte sweep to the left, but the play was nullified on a holding penalty by guard Matt Slauson. Two plays after that, Cutler connected with Jeffery in the side of the end zone for another apparent touchdown. But the play was overturned by the Replay Assistant, who noticed that the ball had moved in Jeffery’s hands as he hit the ground and slid out of bounds. So after two near-touchdowns, the Bears had to settle for another three points, and they trailed by one with just over nine minutes to play.

By that point, though, the Lions had figured out their offensive woes and there just wasn’t any stopping them. Following a Gould touchback, Stafford led his bunch on an eight-play drive that covered 53 yards and set up veteran David Akers for a 45-yard field goal. However, the attempt was carried by the wind and sailed wide right as the Bears maintained the scoring gap within a field goal.

But after a three-and-out by the Bears offense on their next possession, the Lions drove 74 yards on nine plays and capped off the drive with a second Johnson touchdown reception.

It was at that point that the Bears went to McCown for the critical final drive, and McCown seemed to pick up where he left off on Monday night, taking what the defense was giving him and working the offense down the field. McCown’s mobility in the pocket — something Cutler just did not have Sunday afternoon — enabled him to evade a pass rush and find Marshall in the back of the end zone for the score. But that’s as elated as the Bears fans would get, because the questionable two-point conversion attempts ensued and the rest is history.

Losing to the Lions is bitter for many reasons. They’re a dirty bunch, they’re division rivals, they’re an average “team” despite having very talented players, and their head coach is a squirrelly little runt who rubs people the wrong way. But most of all, it hurts because the Lions took a one-game lead in the standings — two, when you count the tiebreaker they possess over the Bears. With the Green Bay Packers suffering another quarterback injury on Sunday — Seneca Wallace left the game with a groin injury — and the Packers losing to the Eagles, the NFC North is now the Lions’ division to lose.

While I have every confidence in the Lions tripping over themselves as they usually do, their schedule appears to be so easy that it’s hard to see them giving up their lead in the standings.

Then again, it’s football, and strange things happen — such as the Rams routing the Colts in Indianapolis, 38-8, and the pathetic Jacksonville Jaguars picking up their first win of the season, albeit by a slim, 29-27 margin over a Titans team that lost its quarterback.

But with the Carolina Panthers upsetting the San Francisco 49ers on the road, even the Wild Card seems like a tough proposition for the Bears now.

Next week, the Bears will host the Baltimore Ravens, a team that may have won the Super Bowl last year but are horribly average this year. They did beat a pretty good Bengals team on Sunday by a field goal, but this game is certainly a winnable one for the Bears.

The questions is, which quarterback will be taking snaps: Cutler or McCown?

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